ANKARA (AFP)–US lobbying was instrumental in breaking a deadlock that threatened–until the last minute–the start of Turkey’s membership talks with the European Union.
The talks opened early Tuesday in Luxembourg when the 25 EU foreign ministers–after more than 20 hours of wrangling–overcame Austria’s insistence to include in the negotiating guidelines an offer to Turkey of "privileged partnership" instead of full membership.
Another sticking point–less in the limelight but just as vital for Turkey –was a demand that Ankara refrain from vetoing attempts by EU member states to join other international bodies.
The Turkish government interpreted this as a possible means of forcing it to agree to an eventual bid by EU-member Cyprus–which it does not recognize–to join NATO.
That is where US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped in "to underline Washington’s interest in support for Turkey as they begin their accession talks with the EU," as State Department spokesman Sean McCormack deftly put it.
As EU foreign ministers struggled to broker a deal in Luxembourg–Rice called Austrian leaders and asked them to drop their objections to Turkey. She then called Turkish leaders to hear their complaints–and then persuaded Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos to soften his stance–paving the way for Turkey to clinch a deal with the EU.
"We think that decisions about NATO membership should be left to NATO members," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington on Monday–without going into details of Rice’s calls.
The intervention was much appreciated by Turkey–a predominantly Muslim but strictly secular state Washington praises as a role model of co-existence between Islam and democracy.
"We are very content" with the US support–foreign ministry spokesman Namik Tan told reporters here Wednesday.
"They backed this project because of the importance they place on the expansion of the space where common values–such as democracy–rule of law–and market economy–prevail," he said.
The United States attracted storms of criticism from EU leaders in the past for meddling in the bloc’s internal affairs by actively lobbying on behalf of Turkey.
When US President George W. Bush said during a visit to Ankara last year that Turkey "ought to be given a date" for EU entry–French President Jacques Chirac angrily retorted that the US leader had gone too far.
But both Turkish and US diplomats say the picture was different this time. "They [the US] did not mean to twist the EU’s arm but to help them understand the global repercussions of their decision," said Turkish diplomat–who did not wish to be named.
"The US displayed a very strategic vision? If the talks had collapsed–the idea of an alliance between civilizations would have suffered; there would have been a great frustration in the East," he said.
An Ankara-based foreign diplomat said Rice’s mediation should not be seen as "an attempt by the US to insert itself in EU decision-making."
"The US was not a leader in the negotiations–it only saw an opportunity to play a supportive role" to help Turkey’s EU bid–the diplomat–who spoke on condition of anonymity–told AFP.
Turkey’s Vatan newspaper–meanwhile–linked the lack of any European criticism of Rice’s mediation this time to improved EU-US ties–strained because of French and German opposition to the war in Iraq.
"Nowadays–the US acts together with Paris and Berlin on sensitive issues such as Iran and Syria," the daily said.
But it warned that seeing Washington’s support as a "kiss of life" for membership talks would be an "exaggeration."
"The real battle in Europe was essentially waged by Turkish diplomats and politicians," it said–"?and the first to say thank you abroad are–rather than Bush and his team–the left-wing and Green parties and the intellectuals of Europe."